Liberal America’s Ignorance of White Supremacy (redux)

Killer Mike rose to the defense of Bernie Sanders with a series of tweets in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates piece “Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?” The exchange between Killer Mike and TNC is great– this is what political disagreements are supposed to look like. I wrote a little about liberals fundamental problem with anti-white supremacy policies yesterday, but want to expound upon it a little further today. I’d like to more directly address what Coates fundamental problem is with Sanders (and the liberal establishment, in general).

Several friends reached out to me, through social media, email, and text regarding this issue (thanks for doing so, I appreciate the dialog). Most expressed confusion or regret with Coates for attacking the one candidate who’s positions would be most advantageous to the black community. “Counterproductive” was the word of the day. Killer Mike echoes this sentiment. To me, this is a very different conversation. It requires that one look at the issue from the standpoint of a political party nomination– i.e. which of these two options (sorry, Martin) is the best/least worst for you? But that is not the conversation Coates is looking to have. He is responding to a long-standing problem with liberals in America: namely, their repeated claims of solidarity with black people are teamed with policies that are almost universally focused on issues that matter to white, middle class Americans.

This is a painfully obvious fact to me. For one, liberals have been absolutely complicit in a variety of anti-black policies in my lifetime, such as creating the New Jim Crow. Indeed, the Clinton’s bear a huge responsibility in making this monstrosity. From redlining to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, liberals have worked hand-in-hand with conservatives in exploiting black America.

On a more personal level, I was made more aware of the arm’s length approach liberals take to talking about race in graduate school. One of the best parts of graduate training in any humanities discipline is fumbling around with new ideas. You try on new theories, see how old narratives and “facts” respond to them, and begin to piece together some working semblance of a framework for your own work. I went to a run-of-the-mill graduate program (For those who don’t know, my masters and PhD work was in policy history). My colleagues were, on the whole, rather unimaginative thinkers. Many fit the stereotype of “liberal academic” in every aspect of their life, from their lack of social skills or concern for personal hygiene down to their abhorrence of racism in pre-1968 America. They would nod in agreement when discussing the heroines of the women’s suffrage movement, but would defend and deflect conversations about ways in which the women’s movement used the specter of black rights to gin up support from the white, male establishment. They would embrace without reflection the notion that there was wide-spread anti-homosexual persecution during the Cold War (note: this totally happened), but were skeptical that home owners associations were part of a vast conspiracy to uphold segregation and white supremacy (other than the fact that it was often explicitly outlined in the association’s various membership agreements, codified into FHA regulations, and touted by realtors…). Some of this I chalked up to the fact that messy narratives can be hard for people to swallow. Understanding that the heroes are sometimes also bad guys muddles things up and makes us uncomfortable. But it went beyond that. Really, whenever we discussed issues of race and policy explicitly they would deflect. “The FHA was targeting poor people and protecting wealthy people’s property. It was coincidental that those poor people were black!” It was the one identity that they could easily dismiss with a wave of their hand and a sneering “it is a class issue, stupid” remark. The Marxists last stand.

In many ways, this remains the position of the Democratic party and liberals in general. We won’t say there is no problem with racism in America. In fact, we point out many of the places where we see it happening, gleefully mock conservatives as they try to spin a tale of how racism was defeated 50 years ago, and then we’ll just say the solution to white supremacy is economic solutions that help everyone!

Helping everyone when the system is rigged against a particular group doesn’t really achieve much. Your rising tide isn’t raising the ships that had their hulls compromised.

That is why TNC is so disgusted with Sanders. His solutions ignore the reality of white supremacy and a system that is specially rigged to take advantage of black people. Let’s see if thinking about it more like a proof can help clear it up.

Coates position is that (1) America’s economic wealth, social structure, and institutions were created through plundering blacks bodies and labor. Furthermore, (2) These conditions remain in place. Since we agree that theft, assault, and murder are unjust we must accept that (3) Issues one and two (a society built on white supremacy) are morally and ethically wrong. As champions for social justice and equality 4) Liberals should be committed to destroying white supremacy and building a more just world.

How liberals respond to each of Coates assumptions here says a lot about the movement. My professional opinion is that assumption one is true. From slavery, to sharecropping, to paying them less for the same work in union jobs, to industries like “Payday loans” that disproportionately target blacks, to our school-to-prison pipeline we have made fortunes off the backs of black people. We have had to change our Constitution multiple times just to recognize blacks as citizens, deserving of dignity and rights. This isn’t ancient history. I think most liberals, gun against their head, would say they agree with premise one.

Assumption number two, that anti-black economic policies and practices, social structures, and institutions remain in place might get some dissent. But beyond saying “well, at least we don’t still buy and sell you like cattle when we are not busy raping you or working you to death in our fields!” I’m not sure what grounds liberals have to deny that there is still significant racial bias built into the system. Police violence against blacks remains disproportionately high. Black educational achievement lags ever further behind their peers in other ethnic groups. Same with wealth/poverty, health, and every other meaningful statistic we gather to indicate quality of life. You don’t need to break down individual policies to see this, a simple glance at how long blacks live, what they do for a living, what they earn, where they live, and the arrest rate to see that blacks live in a radically different America.

If you accept assumption one and two, you likely agree with number three: that white supremacy is wrong. I think everyone agrees with this. Indeed, liberals are fond of talking about their role in the fight against white supremacy. We’ll all be treated to stories of the good folks, white and black, who made Freedom Rides and other contributions to the Civil Rights struggle next month when we gloss over the fact that black people live in America. Excuse the bitterness in my voice, I get that way when I have to think too much about hypocrisy.

If you accept assumption one, two, and three as true, four is an inevitable conclusion. Something must be done. Most liberals I know would agree. Coates solution is reparations. His 2014 feature “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic was one of the most widely read pieces of non-fiction writing penned in the last decade. Yet there has been little to no public discussion on the issue. It is waved off as a non-starter.  Questions like “How would it work? Who will get what? Where would it come from” are treated like they are the Gordian Knot. We put people and objects into fucking outer-space , move hundreds of thousands of men and woman around the world to fight highly technical combat missions, and find a way to collect, count, and use the tax dollars of hundreds of millions of Americans all the time– I think we can figure out the logistics. The truth is, we literally will not have a conversation about overturning white supremacy. White America is not interested.

And it shows. Most of the gains made in the 60s appear to be losing ground. Efforts are being made to roll back voting protections. Blacks are being locked up in debtors prisons, locked into cycles of poverty and crime. Explicitly black places are either being gentrified– i.e. being remade by white monied interests for young, white purposes– or left to rot (like in Flint or Detroit). And the best liberal solutions are vague promises to make massive investments in rebuilding our cities (this smells like gentrification on a wide-scale), in creating millions of decent paying jobs (that will go to white people first), in making public colleges and universities tuition-free (which will go overwhelmingly to white students). Oh, you want to target federal aid dollars to impoverished areas? That is exactly how redlining happened in the first place…

Look, I like Bernie Sanders. I think he is a good man. He has fought hard for the things he believes in. But like most liberals (heck, most Americans), Sanders does not understand how deeply embedded racism is in everything this country does. His solutions do nothing to address the plight of black folks. Then again, neither do Hillary’s. But that is not the point. If the most honorable, radical, and unconventional candidate the Democratic party has ever had make a serious bid at the Presidency can’t see this then what hope is there for the rest of them?

This is why we need people like Coates to agitate. It is why we need to have public dialog on “unreasonable” or “unpopular” ideas. Hiding behind the veil of pragmatism is one thing for the establishment (I still think it is a chicken-shit excuse). But individual citizens, particularly in the press, should never be constrained by such notions. It is our duty as citizens in a democratic nation.

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